No Skepchicamp for me

I unfortunately must announce that I will no longer be able to speak at Skepchicamp, the awesome Chicago skeptical feministy conference on March 6th. I’ve already contacted them about it, but I figured I should also mention it on my blog in case any Chicago people were looking forward to seeing me there. I promise I’ll be missing for a good reason – I’ll be at Stanford for a grad school interview!

If you were planning on going, please don’t cancel on my part – there will be a lot of awesome speakers there, including some of my close Purdue friends. And if you’re in the Chicagoland area and you weren’t planning on going…well you totally should.

I’m disappointed that I’ll miss out on the awesomeness, and that I won’t be speaking at my first skeptical conference after all. Hopefully I’ll get invited somewhere else eventually. I promise I’m not a flake – grad school is a bit more important right now ;)

The creators of “The God Equation” probably won’t get this joke

Remember that nonsensical “God Equation” that was ripped apart over at Pharyngula about a month ago? Yeah, I don’t think its creators will get this joke:I really think the amount you laugh* at xkcd could be a good predictor of nerdiness/science knowledge. I know when I stare at a comic scratching my head, it’s because I don’t know something. This frequently happens when the punchline has to do with programming. Sadness.

*Assuming laughter correlates with getting the joke. If you get it but don’t laugh, I don’t get your sense of humor. If you don’t get it but laugh, you may be insane, really like stick figures, or have a judgmental nerd peering over your shoulder.

Word evolution and the problem with “atheist”

The meaning of some words change over time. It’s a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider “idiot” to mean “stupid” or “foolish” and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you’re stuck in the middle of a word’s evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing “that’s so gay” makes me cringe, but many young people don’t bat an eye because they sincerely don’t intend it to be derogatory – it’s just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I’m sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I’m going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we’re seeing the meaning of “atheist” slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, “How can the meaning of “atheist” change? It’s simple!” Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you’ll get for “atheist.”

From Merriam Webster’s Dictionary:

atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity

Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct – no deity – but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here’s how I would define atheist:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities

I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:

  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between “active belief that something does not exist” and “an absence of belief in the existence of something.” The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking – it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes “deity,” which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we’re talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don’t exist, right?)

Maybe these things aren’t really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they’re drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we’d see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural

This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don’t have too big of a problem with it because they also don’t believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren’t supreme beings. Does that mean they’re not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the “New Atheist” movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at “not believing in any supernatural BS,” we’d probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit – they use “atheist” interchangeably with “secular humanist.” These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:

  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism – probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term “secular humanist” would likely generate even more confusion than “atheist” to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say “I don’t believe in God” and then leave it at that? They wouldn’t be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do it…it’s more common than not.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is our answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We’re a diverse group, and our most common answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” assertion is usually something like “Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have.”

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we’re going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with “Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!”

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you’re talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that “most” or “many” atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that “many” atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word “atheist” is slowly changing into something more complex and human – that we’re finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don’t believe in.

Maybe this really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I’m excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I’d really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.

Irrational reactions to clothes shopping

I hate clothes shopping. When it comes to my list of Failures at Being a Woman, this probably ranks at number one. I loathe shopping for clothes so much that I will literally put it off for a year or more, continuously coming up with new excuses not to go. Even when I’ve mustered up the strength to go to the mall, I usually only last an hour or so before giving up and leaving.

Why the hatred? To me it’s just one big trip into poor body image land. Even when I was younger I hated it. I was 5’9″ at age 11, and let me tell you, no pants fit freakishly tall girls. Even “long” juniors pants were too short, and grown-up jeans looked like clown pants on my hips since I hadn’t filled out yet – a 11 year old girl look more like a ruler than an hour glass. Thankfully I’ve since developed a womanly figure, and finding pants isn’t such a problem.

But if it’s not one thing, it’s another: now I have boobs. I know, I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right? But finding clothes as a D cup is a pain the ass. One, it happened fairly suddenly so I had to get a new wardrobe – five years as a B, then wham! D cup. Old shirts don’t fit, at least not comfortably. And you’d think in a country where the average cup size is a C that I wouldn’t have such issues, but I feel like Goldilocks. Mediums are too small, with it fitting around my abdomen but my boobs feeling like they’re going to explode out ala Superman or the Hulk (or literally doing so if it’s a button up shirt)*. Larges fit my chest, but are like a tent around the rest of my body. Is it so much to ask for clothing for curvy girls? You’d think that in a society which is obsessed with big boobs, we’d give them a little more respect.

Even though these seem like fairly practical gripes, I’ll admit most of my aversion is irrational. Not being able to find clothes that fit makes me feel inadequate. I can look in the mirror and feel attractive, I can have others tell me I’m attractive**, but the moment I’m in that changing room, society’s opinion is weighing in. I know it’s stupid to care about the standards of the fashion industry or just society in general, but it’s hard when you’re immersed in it. I’m below the average weight and pant size of an American woman, yet if you use models and actresses (women we constantly see) as a standard I look like a freaking elephant.

The worst part is that if something seems fashionable, trendy, or cute, I feel like I’m not allowed to wear it. I feel self conscious wearing nice things because it seems totally out of character for me, like I’m only supposed to wear boring things that will just make me blend into the background. I’m not sure if I can even explain the feeling other than “You’re not one of those pretty girly girls, so just throw on a t shirt and jeans.” The idea of getting dolled up for a night out – doing something other than just brushing my hair, putting on any makeup, donning a cute little dress – is just absolutely alien to me. I’m not judging women who do do that – I just feel like I missed out on the Woman Card that gave me clearance to do such things.

Are there others who feel this way, or am unique in my insanity? I hate being so irrational about my appearance mainly because I know it’s irrational. That’s the hard part about being a skeptic. It’s one thing to believe stupid things, but it really stings to know you’re being stupid.

*And the fanboys chant, “Go with the mediums!”
**The point of this post is not to get pity compliments. Please do not regale me with “Well I think you’re hot”s to make me feel better. Just pondering this line of thinking.

H1N1 and Over Skepticism?

My parents are freaking out about H1N1. Every day the news reports a new case of some young person dying, and they say I better go get the flu shot Or Else. I personally feel that the media is overreacting just to have sensationalist, scary stories that grab people’s attention. Most people who contract H1N1 have mild symptoms, and it hasn’t really killed people any more than the normal flu does…the news just doesn’t report normal flu cases. I understand that not many people have immunity so we’re worried about it’s future effects, but I can’t really force myself to freak out about that right now.

Am I being too skeptical about H1N1? Is this something I should be shaking in my boots about? I have to admit, I fall prey to kind of woo-thinking when it comes to medical things. No, I’m not an anti-vaxer – I trust vaccines and understand their importance. But at the same time, I’ve never had a flu shot and I’ve never gotten seriously ill. The couple of times I’ve had the flu it was just like any other illness – you’re mildly miserable for a couple of days, and then you’re fine. I’m not inclined to change my practices that appear to have worked so far.

My problem is I trust my own immune system and the millions of years of evolution that went into making it a little too much. I don’t take Advil unless my headache is severe, I don’t take Tylenol until my cold becomes unbearable, I avoid superfluous antibiotics, I don’t go to the eye doctor until my vision becomes blurry (actually still have to go, whoops). I know it’s a horrible habit, but I’ve always had a “suck it up unless it’s serious” mentality (or as my dad says for injuries, “Rub some dirt in it”). I feel like I don’t want to build up a tolerance to medication so I can still use it when I really need it.

Am I being completely irrational? You won’t hurt my feelings if you say so – I think we’re all irrational about something. Are there other people out there who think like I do?